BROOKLYN, N.Y. — When more than a dozen tweens and teens gathered in Elizabeth Dabney Hochman's home earlier this year to brainstorm themes for their innovative KidSpirit website, the topic curiously changed from money to God.
The suggestion to delve into the divine came from just a couple of the kids, so Hochman sat back to see if the idea would get any traction. That's her typical approach to moderating the freewheeling discussions she hosts in her row house here. About the only question she has to throw out to keep the crowd on track is, "What does that mean?"
The group responded with a flurry of thoughtful questions to which they were eager to find the answer: Are young people today more religious? Less religious? What’s the relationship between God and spirituality? Do humans feel a need to believe in greater powers? What is it that drives humans to have faith? Does there need to be a conflict between science and religion?
"When kids start saying things like that ... when they start asking bigger and bigger questions, I can tell there is some electricity about it," Hochman said. "That's when I know they have something kids want to write about."
And that's how an upcoming edition of KidSpirit — on exploring God — was born. Hochman anticipates articles, art and poetry exploring the transcendent submitted from writers and artists ranging in age from 11-17 years, living inside and outside the United States and expressing views from a myriad of faith and cultural traditions.
Now in its fifth year of publication, KidSpirit has been recognized by National Parenting Publications, Grand Magazine, Mom's Choice Awards, the Association for Educational Publishers, Religion Communicators Council and the Parent's Choice Foundation, among others, as a positive place kids can go to engage on issues that adults would not think to ask them about.
"It has the potential to be the next social site to draw the attention of teens who are looking to interact in an environment without any fear of disapproval, betraying confidences or casting judgment — and that's a rare thing today," said a Parent's Choice review.
Although it is not an objective of KidSpirit, the website also has the potential to fuel a larger trend of interfaith initiatives, which are growing in popularity among young adults, particularly on college campuses. The movement appears to counter recent surveys that have found the generation under 30 years old to be the most irreligious, by traditional standards, of any previous generation.
"In order to build bridges of cooperation across religious difference, young people need an interfaith vocabulary and experiences that help them stay grounded in their own traditions, build bridges to those from other traditions, and do common work for the common good," said Peter De Kock, spokesman for the Interfaith Youth Core, based in Chicago and one of the larger interfaith initiatives in the country.
Since Hochman conceived the idea of a publication for youth that is written, edited and illustrated by their peers, she has learned to never underestimate the drive, determination and intelligence of the younger charges she directs in the process of producing KidSpirit.
"Not be glib, but because I have seen so much of their work, I am not surprised by what they can do," said the 49-year-old professional singer and mother of two daughters.
As she recounts the story of how she launched KidSpirit, Hochman seems equally amazed that she thought she could jump into the publishing business and make a go of it. A dearth of print or online publications where youth could express themselves on meaningful topics, like spirituality, science or ethics, motivated her to take a class in magazine publishing and patiently jump through the hoops of establishing a nonprofit.
"One of the things that led me to follow this idea to create a spiritual magazine for youth is that I think a lot of kids are spiritual and feel a sense of the divine in their lives, but it's not expressed or supported," she said. "Adults may not ask them what is important to them and (what) really matters to them."
From a faith standpoint, Hochman is quite eclectic herself. She grew up Protestant and for two years attended a Catholic high school in Princeton, N.J. Her grandmother was a practicing Baha'i, and her husband is Jewish and a practicing Buddhist. For her spiritual fulfillment, she meditates and practices yoga.
"My faith tradition is very inclusive so I try to maintain a very open attitude toward people and their personal beliefs," she said.
She encourages the same from the 15-member editorial board and the vast number of contributors from around the world who are finding KidSpirit online. Two of those who took that advice to heart are Vidushi Sharma, a Hindu living in Secaucus, N.J., and Susanna Olson, a homeschooled evangelical Christian, living in a suburb of Charlotte, N.C.
Hochman asked them to talk to each other for an hour, write about it and submit their essays to Odyssey Networks, which was handling the State Department's 2012 Hours against Hate initiative designed to promote respect across lines of culture, religion, tradition, class and gender.
Both girls were anxious about the encounter. "I knew she was so different than me. My biggest concern was how are we going to maintain a conversation for an hour," recalls Olson, who is 16 years old. Sharma, a 17-year-old senior attending a public school, acknowledged she had apprehensions about relating to someone she assumed took religion more seriously than she did.
They hooked up over Skype and talked about their faith traditions, God, sin and free will — the things they were asked to discuss. "At one point, we stopped talking and just smiled," wrote Sharma in her essay about the experience. "She had blonde hair, mine was black. She prayed every day, I — almost never. But we both evinced a love of reading, travel, and discussion. We completed each other’s sentences about the smell of books, the thrill of an old library, the electric diversity of NYC. It was a genuinely meaningful conversation. I found a new way of relating to religion, but more importantly, a new friend."
Neither can remember exactly how long their conversation lasted — but it was well more than an hour. "We had a wonderful time together," Olson said. "It did open me to wanting to be with people who are not exactly like me."
Their essays were identified as among the best by Odyssey, which sent film crews to each of the girl's homes. Their experience will be aired on Odysseynetworks.org in early November.
Another experience Sharma and Olson have in common is how they discovered KidSpirit and the unique experience of working with peers. Both found the website while surfing the Internet looking for publishing outlets.
Hochman said that's a common reason for tapping into KidSpirit, especially for kids who are homeschooled or otherwise don't have a lot of opportunities to get published and receive feedback on their work.
And anyone writing for KidSpirit can expect a lot of feedback. The editorial board meets once a month in Hochman's living room to pore over submissions. Sitting on the floor, couches or chairs, the kids eat cookies while they read and mark the submissions up with their edits and suggestions to dig a little deeper here or clarify something there, along with compliments on what they like. Hochman then examines the editing, suggestions looking for consensus, and sends the piece back to the writer for revisions. One submission may go through two or three rewrites before publishing.
"They are really friendly to work with," Olson said of the editorial board. "They like to talk about important things and they don't talk down to you. They take you seriously."
What makes the process work, according to Hochman, is that the collaboration is between kids from different backgrounds, who have never met, communicating with each other about their ideas. At last count, Hochman said, contributors have come from 12 different countries.
"That's very empowering and it's exciting to hear from your peers about your writing," she said. "It's not only educational ... but it encourages kids to push themselves into a much deeper level of thinking."
The quality of expression in the topics the kids tackle belies their youth as they write about science and spirit, myth and meaning, conflict and peacemaking, ethics and morality, and the most recent issue of money and value. Each edition has sections that divide the theme into various categories including, The Big Question, Awesome Moments, Poetry, Interfaith Connections and Perspectives — which is a piece by a "spiritual elder" or adult.
"While there are questions I can’t answer, I do know that true happiness is not a piece of clothing. It is not an expensive car. It doesn’t have a price tag attached to it. True happiness is something that we find in ourselves, as humans," wrote high school freshman Sidarth Jayadev in a piece exploring the question of whether money buys happiness.
At a recent brainstorming session to determine the topics of future editions, the kids discussed ideas ranging from the future to beauty and aesthetics, to gender and even abortion. But Hochman, who encourages discussion, said KidSpirit won't pursue topics that are politically charged and can make people angry.
"Not that we are Pollyannaish, but we want to create content that gives people a sense of common purpose and mutual respect," she said.
The bigger picture
Learning to listen to and understand people of different backgrounds during the formative ages of 11-17 will go a long ways toward building bridges between different cultural and religious traditions in the future, said Mary Dickey, a spokeswoman for the Odyssey Networks, which promotes religious literacy and interfaith dialogue.
"We don't expect people to be converted to another point of view. That's not what we are talking about," Dickey said. "We're talking about religious literacy that is so important going forward to peace in our communities, to civilized dialogue and to peace in the world."
De Kock said his organization's purpose in organizing chapters on hundreds of college campuses is to identify and develop leaders in the interfaith movement who will help make cooperation between differing religions a social norm. IFYC often uses service projects as a way to bring people of varying backgrounds together and recognize common values.
"As our communities get more diverse, our future success will depend on how well we build relationships across religious difference," he said. "In the U.S., the forces of religious pluralism have always defeated the forces of prejudice. That's not inevitable, though. We must step forward and write the next chapter in our great story of religious pluralism."
Hochman said it's not her intent to nurture a generation of activists — although if that is the direction some want to go she has no problem with that.
Instead, the objective of KidSpirit is two-fold: Give kids a quiet place on the Internet for reflection and contemplation, and provide a framework for creative, educational and positive interaction with peers who share your interests and concerns.
"I don’t really have a single goal about the way a child should be affected by (KidSpirit), but more than that, it should be something that would be a positive vehicle for growth — spiritual, emotional and social."
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